Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Archaeologists excavate Dyar mound, an earthen pyramid used for Indigenous rituals.

University of Georgia

Sacred site reveals how Indigenous people resisted colonial forces for 130 years

About 130 kilometers from modern-day Atlanta, a three-story-tall earthen pyramid once rose among the rolling hills of the Oconee Valley. Atop the mound were red cedar pergolas and two large platforms—one with food scraps and cooking fires, the other with meticulously swept floors and clay hearths simmering sacred drink.

For centuries, this monument was used in ceremonies by an Indigenous alliance of chiefdoms that flourished between the Appalachian slopes and the sea. Then, Spanish colonizers arrived: In 1540, an expedition led by Hernado de Soto blazed through the valley in 11 days. The encounter brought disease, destabilization, and—most archaeologists thought—swift social collapse. Now, a new study shows people in the Oconee Valley—ancestors of the later Muscogee, or Creek tribes—continued their Indigenous traditions at the monument, Dyar mound, for nearly 130 years after Spanish contact.

“They didn’t just stop like, ‘Oh, civilization’s over. We’re going to go ahead and jump into [colonial history] now,’” says Turner Hunt, an archaeologist with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department who is also Muscogee. Along with RaeLynn Butler, manager of the same department, he advised the authors of the new study. Butler calls the new finding “a big deal, because this solidifies what we already believe to be true … that we’re descendants of the mound builders.”

The mound builders—a term that includes various North American Indigenous groups—constructed imposing earthen pyramids across the Midwest and Southeast for thousands of years. By 1670, when English settlers started to move in, most Muscogee near Dyar mound had already moved to other river valleys. Forced resettlements in the 1800s century pushed them still farther, along the Trail of Tears, to eastern Oklahoma, where today’s Muscogee (Creek) Nation is headquartered.

In the late 1970s, archaeologists hastily excavated Dyar mound and its village before they were flooded by a dam. The researchers found pottery, hearths, and wood that had formed structures atop the mound. But, aside from a single blue bead, they didn’t find Spanish artifacts. That, combined with the presumed age of the pottery, convinced them the mound had been abandoned in 1540 C.E., right after de Soto’s entrada.

Then, in 2019, a team of archaeologists led by Jacob Holland-Lulewicz of Washington University in St. Louis decided to re-examine some of the artifacts, now stored at the University of Georgia. When the researchers radiocarbon dated wooden logs and posts, they found that the newest were from 1670 C.E., more than 100 years after the Spanish incursion, they report this month in American Antiquity. Because radiocarbon dating can be off by 100 years or more, the researchers used statistical modeling that narrowed the possible age range of samples, based on how deep they were located in the mound.

“One hundred and thirty years after it’s supposed to be abandoned, we have all the classical markers of Indigenous religion,” says Holland-Lulewicz, whose team included colleagues from the University of Georgia and Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. From the 1540s through the 1600s, Holland-Lulewicz says, Oconee Valley people rarely interacted with Europeans. “You might have a few contacts going up and down the river, [but] you’re not seeing a Spanish person everyday. … Colonization starts out like a trickle.”

As European diseases spread, additional Indigenous people moved from villages to homesteads. But they maintained mound centers like Dyar for community events. Holland-Lulewicz says Dyar likely lacked Spanish artifacts, not because foreign goods were unavailable, but because they were banned from the sacred mound—similar to prohibitions against cellphones and other modern technology in some Muscogee ritual grounds today.

“This kind of absence of evidence speaks volumes,” says Tsim Schneider, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and citizen of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who was not involved in the study. “Native people are actively resisting and refusing colonialism … finding ways to maintain and practice their cultures.” Schneider has uncovered similar cases in California’s Marin county. There, he found that 69 of 122 Indigenous sites that had been used after contact with Europeans were listed in California’s Office of Historic Preservation records as “prehistoric,” or precontact.

“The impression that most people have is native people simply disappeared from the landscape,” he says. He adds that high-resolution chronologies, like that produced for Dyar mound, could help dismantle myths about Indigenous disappearance and collapse, and strengthen tribal repatriation claims for artifacts.

Hunt and Butler agree. It was their understanding of contemporary Muscogee rites that led to the explanation for the lack of Spanish artifacts—and a proposal that the two platforms may have been used for medicine ceremonies and council meetings.

But for Hunt, there is sorrow amid the science. When he sees photos from the excavation: “It makes me sick. Literally, my stomach starts to turn because I know how much work went into building those and what they meant and what they represent.” Had Muscogee archaeologists been involved in the 1970s he says, they would have fought to preserve the mound.

*Corrections, 27 July, 10 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct a reference to Hernando de Soto and to correct a time reference to forced resettlements of Native Americans.